A week or so ago I mentioned, in a meeting that included both traditional and progressive evangelicals, that the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention was going to hold a three-day “sex summit” in Nashville and lots of people laughed. They obviously had not looked at some of the rather interesting sessions on the docket, which included newsworthy real-life topics (at least to me) such as pastors who are wrestling with their own porn addictions, advice for those counseling people caught up in a variety of kinds of sexual sins, a major session on sex trafficking and another built on new sociological data on how religious beliefs influence people’s views on sex.
Oh, right, and there was a panel discussion — as opposed to a keynote address — on “The Gospel and Homosexuality.”
This conference drew quite a bit of coverage and, at times, lit up the Twitter-verse. There really is no way to do justice to all of the coverage — some of it quite good. However, I did find a wrap-up piece from Al Jazeera America that kind of summed up the negative side of things, the attitude among some mainstream reporters that they knew what the conference was really about, even if that wasn’t what the conference was really about.
I want to take a rather different approach on this one. We are going to walk through this news feature passage by passage, sometimes paragraph by paragraph, looking for news and information that is actually drawn from this content-rich event. Yes, this news report has a Nashville dateline so the implication is that the Al Jazeera America scribe was actually present at the event.
Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Prominent evangelical Christian leaders met here this week to discuss a topic that’s typically taboo in Sunday church: sexuality. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) was hosting its first “leadership summit,” which its new leader said he hoped would provoke a “frank conversation” on sexual ethics. Speakers tackled topics including pornography, “hookup culture,” premarital sex, the decline of marriage, sexual abuse, divorce and, arguably the most contentious, homosexuality.
Younger attendees at the event, a meeting of the country’s largest Protestant denomination, sported beards, stylish plaid and the occasional NPR tote bag. Everyone spent the week tweeting — the summit attracted much attention from the Christian blogosphere — and one speaker jokingly asked people to “turn on their Bibles,” a nod to the popularity of e-books and Bible apps.
There are a few nice details in there. However, I thought that these churches were obsessed with sex and talked about sex and sexual sins all the time. I guess I was wrong on that. There do appear to be two short quotes from sessions, although not about newsworthy topics.
The group’s president, Russell Moore, took a gentler, less combative approach than his predecessor, Richard Land, who was known to make incendiary comments. (Just last week, Land suggested on a radio show that homosexuality is caused by childhood sexual abuse.) Most Southern Baptists, like other mainstream evangelicals, have given up talk of “reparative therapy” for gays in favor of love, grace and “peacemaking.” At this week’s summit, Florida pastor Jimmy Scroggins called for an end to “redneck theology” and said, “We have to stop telling ‘Adam and Steve’ jokes.”
OK, we have another pair of tiny quotes, but it’s hard to tell what they are about. However, it appears that this conference — from the viewpoint of this writer — was primarily about homosexuality. Let’s continue:
But the event was also a setting where the word “fornicators” was used without irony, and gay people were referred to as “homosexuals.” The meeting — with sessions such as “The Gospel and Homosexuality” — made clear that these evangelicals are not wavering in their stance on certain issues: Marriage is between a man and a woman, homosexual behavior is a sin, and church leaders must not condone it. And that raises the question: In a time of fast-growing embrace of gay rights, when more of their fellow Christians are insisting there’s room for debate on the issue, can conservatives maintain their vision of orthodoxy?
Still no significant material from any of the content sessions. It appears that the purpose of the event was to illustrate what may or may not be taking place among evangelicals on gay issues. Can you say World Vision? In other words, the news hook for coverage of this event was not the content of the event itself.
So it’s about time to get to the meat of this story:
These days, for the first time, evangelicals are beginning to argue among themselves about homosexuality. Last month World Vision, the large evangelical anti-poverty organization, announced it would begin hiring married gay Christians. Less than 48 hours later, under public pressure from evangelical leaders including Moore, the organization reversed the decision.
Nothing there from the summit.
The reversal was a triumphant moment for conservatives. But the fallout caused an uproar among progressive evangelicals. Polls consistently show that young evangelicals are far more accepting of gay relationships than older evangelicals are. A poll released in February by the Public Religion Research Institute, for example, found that white evangelical millennials are more than twice as likely as their elders to support same-sex marriage.
Nothing there from the summit.
A new book by 24-year-old Matthew Vines, who is gay and evangelical, is adding to the debate. “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships,” published on Tuesday by a Christian imprint of Penguin Random House, started to attract attention even before its release. The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, R. Albert Mohler Jr., released an e-book rebuttal the same day.
In an interview last week, Vines said many evangelicals are open to changing their views on gay marriage, even if they tell pollsters they don’t support it. Young believers have gay classmates, co-workers and family members; the social costs of maintaining traditional views on gays are high, he said. “Their theological position is so much more open to changing than [Moore] wishes it were,” Vines said. “That’s not something he or any other evangelical leader is going to be able to change.”
Lydia Bean, a sociologist at Baylor University, said evangelicals are going to face mounting questions over whether there is room in their churches for a wider spectrum of views. “You’re going to see more and more of that conflict within evangelicalism over the next five to 10 years.” Bean’s forthcoming paper in the journal Sociology of Religion, based on national survey data, locates 24 percent of evangelicals in the “messy middle”: They remain opposed to homosexuality on moral grounds but still support civil unions.
Perhaps this is more pre-event background material or was Bean at the conference? It’s hard to tell.
As the “messy middle” grows, some argue that religious leaders will have to decide if condemning homosexuality is central to the definition of evangelical Christianity. Otherwise, they will face the possibility that their numbers and influence will shrink. But Moore rejects this premise and many of the poll numbers that support it: Many pollsters, he says, define “evangelical” too broadly. Few Southern Baptist millennials are wavering in their support for the church’s values, he told Al Jazeera “If we have to choose between church growth and Jesus, we choose Jesus, but I don’t think that’s a choice that has to be made.”
OK, it’s nice to seek a quote from the key figure in the event. Once again, however, where is the actual content of the session Moore led? Wouldn’t it be good to have reactions to the actual information presented in the conference sessions the reporter was sent (maybe I am just being naive) to cover?
But Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and chair of the religion department at Dartmouth College, said he thinks Moore is “whistling in the dark.” “I would not want to be a church leader defending the restriction of gay rights these days,” said Balmer, who has written frequently about the history of American evangelicalism. One option for conservatives, he said, would be to hold their ground and “decamp to the margins” of the culture. “Part of me, albeit reluctantly, will have to admire that,” he said. Another option would be for churches to maintain the same official beliefs about homosexuality but hold them more quietly, making room for disagreement in the pews.
Again, was Balmer at the conference or was he called to react to the publication’s view of what was supposed to happen in the conference? One thing is very, very clear: This conference was all about homosexuality. Totally. Beginning to end. These Southern Baptist folks are totally obsessed with homosexuality.
At this week’s summit, compromise was not on the table. On Tuesday, Mark Regnerus, a controversial sociologist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, presented new unpublished data that found only 11 percent of young evangelicals who attend church weekly support gay marriage. Regnerus’ much-disputed 2012 research on gay parenting was cited frequently at the summit as proof that children need a mother and a father.
We have an actual sentence of factual material presented in one of the sessions! Oh joy! I wonder, however, if his presentation was all about, you know, homosexuality or did it have anything substantive about the announced topic which was, for those who have forgotten, “Sex in America: Sociological Trends in American Sexuality” — especially those linked to religious beliefs and practice.
Well, there is this fine Religion News Service piece about the content of this particular session. Oh, wait. It’s by you know who — former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey. Clearly she thought the goal of going to this conference was to actually listen to and cover the contents of some of the sessions.
Hang on, we are almost done.
“I believe these truths are ascertainable by virtue of human reason, and they seem to be borne out in social science data,” Andrew Walker, the ERLC’s 29-year-old director of policy studies, said after hosting a session on threats to biblical marriage. He said he wouldn’t change his views on gay marriage and parenting even if social science conclusively proved that gay parents are no worse than straight ones. “I would still say, based on biblical precedent, that the child in that situation, while maybe on social outcomes is successful and flourishing, still has not been given access to either a mother or a father.”
So was the presentation by Regnerus about his old study or his new one? What did he say in his Nashville presentation that, you know, centered on his totally new material that was being aired for the first time? You know, the new news?
And now, the end.
The Southern Baptist leaders gathered in Nashville are holding firm. It’s not only their approach to homosexuality that many see as old-fashioned: They want Christians to wait until they marry to have sex, and to abstain completely from pornography.
“We’re moving into a time where a Christian understanding of sexuality is going to seem strange, it will seem freakish, and will in many cases seem subversive to the people around us,” Moore said in his keynote speech on Tuesday night. “What I think we ought to do as people of God is not to run away from the strangeness of Christianity.”
And there it is, folks! Yes, this story ends with one real, live quote from a major session at this event. Now was there anything else offered during the Nashville summit that was linked to that rather countercultural statement?